SUVs have been gaining in popularity for years, but the final sales figures from last year still are startling: SUVs outsold sedans two-to-one in the United States in 2019 — a statistic that takes on even more weight when you factor in that it was just in 2015 that SUV sales topped those of sedans for first time.
Since then, the market has rushed to sport utilities, said Tom Libby, automotive analyst at IHS Markit.
"SUVs made up 47.4 percent of U.S. sales in 2019 with sedans at 22.1 percent," Libby said.
For nearly two decades, the Toyota Camry was the bestselling passenger vehicle in the United States. And it still is the most popular sedan. But last year, Toyota's RAV4 sport utility took the passenger crown. And several other SUVs followed. In order, they were the Honda CR-V, Nissan's Rogue and Rogue Sport and the Chevy Equinox.
Why the seismic shift? It comes down to practicality, ride height, baby boomers and, well, vanity.
"It was time for a change," said Tom Kearns, chief designer for Kia's Design Center America. "People appreciate the function, utility and visibility compared to sedans. It's driven by changing lifestyles, usefulness and technology."
Some automotive designers feel it was simply time for a change of the automotive silhouette.
The first cars looked like horse carriages. In the 1920s, cars acquired a "two-box" form: one for the engine, a second for passengers and cargo. The 1950s ushered in more streamlined "three-box" sedan designs (engine/passenger/cargo). From the 1960s through the '80s, cars became lower, longer and wider as technology allowed more efficient packaging. Today's SUV two-box forms are similar to cars 90 years old.
Only a blip among automotive sales before 1990, SUVs were primarily large, two-door pickup-based trucks like the Chevrolet K5 Blazer, Dodge Ramcharger and Ford Bronco. All-wheel-drive cars such as the AMC Eagle and Subaru station wagons were early embers, but the fire began somewhat unnoticed in 1984 with the unibody-based Jeep XJ Cherokee.
The blaze jumped the fire line in 1990 with the wildly popular Ford Explorer. The Explorer's formula was simple — practical size and height, comfort, plus four doors. Big enough for families, yet the children didn't have to rappel out of it. Minivans, the primary family haulers that Chrysler pioneered in 1983, had acquired "mom-mobile" baggage.
In the 1990s, "baby boomers and their kids were growing up," said Erich Merkle, Ford's head of U.S. sales analysis. "Explorer offered something that minivans couldn't — status and rugged style to go with good utility.
"Sport utes were more expensive and less fuel-efficient," he continued, "but boomers passing through their peak income and spending years were excited about them because they weren't minivans."
Jeep's Grand Cherokee, which came to the market in 1992, advanced the breed, employing unibody construction for comfortable carlike driving. SUVs offered the same elevated driving position as vans but added an outdoorsy image, even if few ventured off road.
Premium SUVs like Lincoln's Navigator seemed odd at first, but buyers voted enthusiastically with their checkbooks. At Cadillac, "Escalade gave people the luxury, style and comfort of sedans with better visibility and usefulness," said Jason Sledziewski, Cadillac's director of product planning.
Boomers and younger generations continue to drive the SUV market, but in different directions.
"The data says boomers prefer smaller SUVs — they're empty nesters that don't need space but appreciate the ride height and easy ingress and egress," Merkle said. "Millennials aged 35 to 44 probably haul children and maybe even their parents. They're buying larger three-row SUVs for space."
Although Ford famously announced in 2018 that it was largely abandoning the passenger car market in North America, few experts are predicting the demise of the sedan.
"Some buyers simply don't want an SUV," Sledziewski said. "They want driving dynamics that only cars provide. We'll keep offering that."